Audrey Chapman’s legs burned with lactic acid, but that didn’t stop her from picking up the pace as her house came into view. She sprinted the last fifty yards, pumping her arms harder. Sucking in the humid August air with controlled breaths. Reminding herself to finish strong.
At the mailbox, she stopped her watch, satisfied with her workout, and eased into a walking pace. A shocking spray of cold water pelted her back. She screamed loud enough to set off the neighborhood dogs.
“You looked like you needed to cool off.” Trevor Hayes, Audrey’s next-door neighbor and closest friend, stood next to his sudsy car, aiming a garden hose in her direction. He wore a tank top with basketball shorts, flip flops, and his signature University of Minnesota cap turned backwards.
Audrey couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across her face. Even pretending she was mad at Trevor was impossible. “I sure did. Thank you so much.” She squeezed water from her curly blonde ponytail and waddled up Trevor’s driveway in her sopping shorts. “It felt great. I mean, there’s nothing better than wet socks and underwear.”
“Glad I could help.” Trevor began rinsing the bubbles off his car. “You look fast. Are you ready for cross-country?”
Audrey sprawled out in the Hayes’ lawn, looking up into the cloudless sky. It was the last Friday of the summer. On Monday she’d be starting her freshman year at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was only a half-hour drive from her hometown of Hastings. But still, the excitement of moving away from home, living on campus and running for a collegiate team sent butterflies twirling in her stomach. “I’m so ready!”
She sat up to remove her shoes and peel off her wet socks. “And you? Are you ready to go down in history as the Gophers’ best wide receiver?” Trevor, a year older than Audrey, was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.
He cracked his typical modest grin. “I’ll do my best.”
“I’m going to the Michigan game with Becca.” She knew Trevor’s football schedule wouldn’t allow him the opportunity to cheer her on at any of her races. As much as she looked forward to college life, she dreaded the separation from Trevor. She’d missed him last year when he went to the U. But they had lots of time to catch up over the summer, and she felt closer to him now than ever before.
Trevor picked up a rag, wiping away the water spots on the hood of the car. Time for payback. She pulled herself up off the ground, still tired from her run, and grabbed the hose. She took a long drink of the cold water, and then doused Trevor from head to toe. “You asked for it, buddy.”
He lunged at her, wrestling the hose from her grasp. She grabbed a soapy sponge off the ground and hurled it at his chest, sending a burst of bubbles into the air.
“Wait.” Trevor held up his hands.
Audrey laughed. “I’m not letting you off that easy.” She picked up a bucket of soapy water for ammunition.
“No, wait. My phone is in my pocket.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and held it in front of himself like a shield. “You break it, you buy it.”
Audrey set down the bucket, and put her hands on her hips. “That is so not fair. You got off easy this time, but watch your back. This isn’t over.” It was never over between them. Truth be told, Trevor was the one always keeping her on her toes. She loved Trevor’s goofiness, even when it was at her expense.
Trevor flicked water from his fingers, and then swiped the screen of his phone. “Jake texted me. Wants to know if I’ll team up with him for two-on-two basketball at his place tonight.” Jake Preston, like Becca Olson, was a friend Trevor and Audrey had grown up with at Hope Church. The circle of friends became especially tight over the last few years in the youth group, despite their differing ages. Jake and Becca were slated to start their senior year at Hastings High School.
“Is Becca gonna be there?” She was usually only a stone’s throw from Jake’s side.
“I’ll ask.” Trevor typed on his phone. “Yep. She’s already there.” He held up the phone, displaying a selfie of Jake and Becca. “Wanna go?”
“Sure. Pick me up in an hour. That should give you enough time to wipe away those water spots.” She pointed to his clean car that had suffered in the crossfire of their water fight.
“Yes, your highness.” Trevor bowed down.
Audrey hurried home, eager to jump into the shower and get ready for the night. This weekend was dedicated to hanging out with her hometown friends. Because on Monday, she would tell them goodbye and start a new chapter of her life.
Forty-five minutes later, Audrey slipped her feet into sandals and glanced out the front window just as Trevor pulled up in front of her house.
“Bye, Mom and Dad,” she called over her shoulder. “I’m hanging out at the Preston’s’ house tonight.” The screen door clapped shut behind her as she stepped into the evening sunlight. The humidity had lightened enough that she felt comfortable in an ensemble of jeans and an emerald tank top. She’d dressed up her simple outfit just a bit with the modest teardrop diamond necklace and earrings her parents had given to her as a high school graduation gift.
Sliding into the passenger seat of Trevor’s car, she noticed he’d spritzed on a little cologne even though tonight’s get-together was just a casual meet-up...playing basketball, no less. She considered giving him a hard time about it, but decided instead to just enjoy the delicious musky scent. It suited him well.
Audrey buckled her seat belt. “Ready when you are.”
Trevor pointed toward the house, a smirk on his face. “Did you forget to give your mom a goodbye hug?” Audrey’s mom ran out to the car, barefoot, and in her typical attire of capris and a button-down shirt, waving a book. Audrey rolled down her window.
Trevor leaned over, peering out Audrey’s window. “Hi, Mrs. Chapman.”
“Hey, Trev. I’m so glad I caught you guys.” She handed the book to Audrey. “Can you please give this to Mrs. Preston? It’s my study Bible. I told her I’d lend it to her, but we haven’t crossed paths lately.”
“Sure thing, Mom.”
“Thank you so much.” She blew a kiss to Audrey, and then flitted onto the porch where she stood waving.
Audrey waved back, rolling her eyes. “My mom is all sad about me moving away from home. She’s been babying me all week.”
“She’s going to miss you. Making sure you’re up for school every morning. Waiting for your return each evening.” Trevor waved sweetly to her mom. “Those are the things my mom said she missed last year when I moved out.”
Audrey’s heart melted a bit. She looked over at Trevor, admiring the sincere look emanating from his light blue eyes. She might get homesick and miss her parents, but she knew for sure that she’d miss Trevor. Still, after building a childhood of memories together, she had confidence that nothing could ever make them grow apart.
At the first glimpse of Jake’s house, Audrey’s stomach dropped. The place looked like it had been attacked by a fraternity club. Beer cans littered the lawn, and a group of kids mingled in the yard. “What has Jake gotten himself into now?” Not only was Jake under the legal drinking age, but getting busted for consuming alcohol could get him kicked off the high school football team.
Trevor squeezed his car into a parking space along the normally quiet suburban street of Hastings, Minnesota. “This looks like trouble. I know Jake parties once in a while, but this is crazy.”
“I thought it was just gonna be a few of us hanging out.” This wasn’t turning out to be the carefree night she’d hoped for. As much as she wanted to see her friends, she didn’t want to engage in the party scene she’d managed to avoid her entire high school career.
Trevor turned off the ignition. “Me too. I can text him and say we decided not to come. He knows you and I don’t drink.”
“What about this?” Audrey held up the Bible. “Let’s just go in for a few minutes. I’ll deliver the Bible and say hi to Becca.”
“I did promise Jake we’d team up for basketball. We can leave right after that.”
Audrey knocked on the door of the sprawling craftsman home, clutching the Bible in her other hand. She twisted the band of her running watch, waiting for an answer. Tucking a strand of her blonde curly hair behind her ear, she tilted her head toward the door. From inside the house, a muffled cacophony of hip-hop music and laughter seeped into the still night air.
Some guys toting a case of beer pushed past Audrey and Trevor, opening the door without knocking. Trevor followed suit, taking hold of Audrey’s hand and stepping into the entryway. The house was packed with teens, many of whom Audrey didn’t recognize. Trevor put his arm around her shoulders. He leaned down so that his face was close to hers; the scent of his cologne wafted over her. “Are you thirsty?” Even with him shouting in her ear, Audrey could barely hear him over the loud drumming music. She nodded, placing her arm around his back so they wouldn’t get separated in the crowd.
Trevor led her through the throng of partiers to the kitchen island that served as a makeshift bar. A bucket of ice was centered amidst half-empty bottles of hard liquor, plastic two-liter pop bottles, and stacks of red Solo cups. The display reminded her of movies she’d seen of college frat parties. She preferred watching it on a screen over experiencing it for herself. Glancing over her shoulder at the entryway, she debated making a run for it. But she needed to set the Bible down somewhere and talk to Becca.
“Here you go.” Trevor handed her a cup of pop. She took a sip, enjoying the familiar fizz of sweetness on her tongue. She smiled at the notion that he hadn’t had to ask what she’d like to drink. He knew Coke was her favorite beverage. The security of being with Trevor, her best friend, put her at ease. She stood on her toes, shouting into his ear so that he could hear her voice over the music, “Let’s hurry up and mingle and then get outta here.”
“Hey, Trevor.” Jake yanked Trevor into a bro hug, causing Trevor’s drink to slosh out of the cup. “It’s about time you showed up. You up for a game of hoops? We’ll make a killer team.”
Trevor, wiping Mountain Dew from his shirt, looked to Audrey.
She shrugged, attempting to appear nonchalant. “Go ahead. Show them who’s boss.” It would be infantile to tell him she didn’t want him to leave her side.
He slung his arm over her shoulder again. “Come out and watch.” Again, he knew her too well.
Becca Olson sidled up next to Jake. “I’m going to be your personal cheerleader.” Her eyes were sleepy, her movements exaggerated and unsteady. She leaned against Jake as much to flirt as to steady herself, it seemed. Her half-masted eyes swept over Audrey. “Hey, girl! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Jake, brushing Becca off, pushed Trevor toward the back door. “Let’s school these boys!”
Becca swayed without the support of Jake. Audrey linked arms with her friend, holding her steady. It was no secret that Becca partied from time to time, but Audrey had never witnessed Becca’s drinking before. Becca was normally super concerned with her appearance. Her brown hair was usually coiffed in silky waves that cascaded down her back, and her makeup was pure artistry. She posted tutorials on YouTube that got thousands of views. So seeing Becca disheveled and tripping over her own feet was unsettling. “Becca, how about if we watch them together? You can teach me some football cheers.” Becca clearly needed some looking-after.
They made their way outside and followed a stone pathway lit by garden lights to the sport court. The fresh air was a relief after being in that congested house. They sat on the outskirts of the court, leaning their backs against the fence. The other duo was already shooting around as Jake and Trevor discussed game tactics. They’d be playing against their friend Gavin and some guy who played Hastings football. Trevor dribbled the ball to the three-point line and sunk a shot. Audrey clapped. “Nice shot, Hayes!”
Becca laughed. “Settle down. They’re just warming up.”
Audrey gave her inebriated friend a playful shove. “We need to get them psyched up. We’re their cheerleaders, right?”
Becca cupped her hands around her mouth. “Shirts against skins. Jake and Trevor are skins!”
Jake pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it to Becca. “Is this your idea or Audrey’s?” He flexed his pectorals.
Becca slipped his shirt on over her own T-shirt. “It was a mutual decision.” She winked at Audrey.
“Whatever!” Audrey shoved Becca again. This time Becca tipped over and sprawled out on the ground laughing. Trevor took off his shirt and tossed it out of bounds on the other side of the court. Their friends had always teased Audrey and Trevor about harboring a surreptitious romance. Truthfully, their relationship was unequivocally platonic.
So why did she blush and force herself to look away when Trevor took off his shirt? She took a gulp of cold, refreshing Coke.
Becca sat up and nudged Audrey with her elbow. “You’re welcome.” She winked again. “That’s what friends are for.”
The guys played a couple of games under the lights. Trevor was an amazing athlete. It was fun to watch him play any sport, even just a pickup game of basketball. It wasn’t surprising that he’d been recruited to play Division I football. Audrey watched Trevor deftly steal the ball from Gavin. He dribbled effortlessly down the court and made a slam dunk. She held her hand up to Becca prompting a high five.
Becca just sat there and groaned. “I don’t feel so good.”
“What do you mean?” Audrey examined her friend’s face. She was white as a sheet. “You’re not going to throw up, are you?”
Becca shielded her eyes from the bright lights illuminating the sport court. “I’m a little woozy.”
Audrey jumped up, out of the line of fire. She looked around for help. The guys were focused on their game, and no one else was outside. “Stand up. Let’s get to the bathroom.” She pulled Becca onto her feet. Audrey eased open the gate to the sport court and ushered Becca across the yard. “Remind me why you think drinking is so much fun.”
Becca stopped dead in her tracks just as they were about to step onto the back patio. She hunched over, planting her hands on her knees. “I’m not sure it’s such a good idea either.” Audrey lifted Becca’s hair away from her face. Becca looked up at her. “Why can’t I be like you?” Becca coughed a couple of times. “Wholesome. That’s what you are.”
Audrey rolled her eyes. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be described as wholesome. In a way it was a good thing, but at the same time, it sounded lame. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Now let’s keep going.” She tugged on Becca’s arm, but met resistance.
Becca grunted. Then she vomited on the manicured lawn.
Holding Becca’s hair with one hand, Audrey dug a ponytail holder out of her pocket with the other hand. She fastened Becca’s hair at the base of her neck, trying not to get queasy from her friend’s retching. “Becca, I’ll take you home. Did you drive here?”
“How were you planning to get home?”
Becca didn’t answer. She remained hunched over.
Audrey texted Trevor to let him know she’d be driving Becca home. She looked over at him out on the basketball court. He was focused on the game, guarding an opponent. His long arms stretched out to the sides, his muscles flexed. Undeniably attractive.
She reminded herself to blink.
He blocked a pass, and took possession of the ball. He passed it to Jake who ran it down the court for a layup. Trevor backpedaled, getting into position. A light sheen of sweat on his chest and arms glistened--
“Hello?” Becca waved a hand inches from Audrey’s eyes. “As soon as you’re done drooling over Hayes we can go inside.”
“I’m not drooling.” Audrey peeled her eyes off Trevor. “I’m just watching the game and…admiring his athleticism.”
“You keep telling yourself that.” Becca placed a hand on her stomach. She still looked ill. “When are you two gonna hook up?”
Audrey scoffed. “First of all, we’re just friends. For another thing, I don’t plan to hook up with anybody until I’m married.”
Becca held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, Miss Wholesome. Whatever you say.”
Audrey rolled her eyes. She led the way to the bathroom, parting the crowd for her over-indulgent friend. Becca knocked into people as they went. Audrey set her Coke down on a kitchen counter behind the coffeepot and linked arms with Becca.
In the bathroom, Audrey fixed Becca’s hair while Becca splashed water on her face. Her color improved with the help of lip gloss. The two friends stood side by side, gazing at their reflections. Becca was tall and slightly curvy. She was strikingly pretty with coffee-colored eyes and light brown skin. In contrast, Audrey was petite with shoulder-length curly blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and a smattering of freckles. She wasn’t strikingly beautiful like Becca, but people often told her she was cute. Cute and wholesome. Made her sound like a puppy.
“You know,” Becca said, looking at Audrey in the mirror, “you don’t need to take me home.”
Audrey faced her friend. She planted her hands on her hips. “You’re not driving. I won’t let you. Not after you’ve been drinking.”
Becca tipped her head toward the floor and traced the grout between tiles with the toe of her shoe. “I’m not driving home.” She stared into Audrey’s eyes. “I’m staying with Jake.”
“Oh.” Audrey blushed. She felt foolish for not understanding at first. “Are you sure you’re ready? I mean, you’re only seventeen, and you guys aren’t really even dating.”
Becca smiled coyly. “It won’t be the first time. I mean, it will be the first time I stay the night. His parents are at some family reunion in Wisconsin for the weekend. But it won’t be the first time that Jake and I…” Her voice trailed off.
Audrey leaned a hip against the vanity. She felt naïve. Yet at the same time horrified that her closest girlfriend had sex, and Audrey had no idea. Growing up in the same church, she thought they shared morals on waiting until marriage.
“Do your parents know?”
“No!” Becca’s eyes grew wide. “And they better not find out.” Her words came out like a threat.
Audrey rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to tell anyone. That’s your deal.”
Becca’s demeanor softened. “But my mom did put me on the pill and gave me a speech about condoms just to be safe. So embarrassing.” Becca turned to the mirror and fluffed her hair. “She told me she hoped I wouldn’t need the protection but that it was better to be safe than sorry.”
Audrey sighed. She was more naive than she’d realized. Way more naive than Becca.
“You don’t have to worry about me.” Becca twirled a strand of her dark hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I just didn’t think you’d understand. I thought you might judge me.”
Becca flashed her gorgeous smile. “Let’s go have some fun while Trevor and Jake are playing basketball. Then you can take off.”
“I can’t talk you into going home?”
Becca shook her head. “Not a chance. Besides, I need to help Jake clean up this house in the morning.”
Audrey shrugged. “Fine. But you’re not drinking anymore as long as I’m here. I am not suffering through another of your puking episodes.”
“Fair enough.” Becca yawned. “Don’t worry. I’m done for the night.”
Audrey opened the bathroom door, bracing herself as she reentered the party scene. The crowd had lightened some. She found her drink where she’d stashed it on the counter and finished it off. It didn’t taste as good, having lost its fizz and the ice cubes had dissolved. Becca grabbed her hand. “Let’s mingle.” They talked to graduates and the in-coming seniors. Most kids weren’t completely smashed like Becca had been. Audrey loosened up and chided herself for being such a goody-goody. She was warming up to the party scene. It really wasn’t such a big deal. Just a bunch of kids hanging out—having a good time.
They meandered into the dimly lit living room, lured by the source of the music. Jake’s mom’s exquisite area rug had been rolled up and propped in a corner, revealing the polished hardwood flooring that currently served as a dance floor. Audrey and Becca joined a crowd that encircled a couple of guys competing in a dance-off. A hip-hop beat rattled the windows and shook the walls. Audrey kept time by clapping a hand on her thigh as a weak attempt at appearing interested. In truth, she felt like an intruder in Mr. and Mrs. Preston’s home. They would be horrified by these kids trashing their house. Plus, the loud music screaming in her ears was giving her a headache. She rubbed her temples with her thumbs while shielding her eyes from the flashing strobe lights. How did strobe lights get in here anyway?
Becca looked over at her. “You really need to loosen up.”
Audrey laughed despite herself. “Am I really that bad?”
“How do I put this nicely?” Becca pursed her lips and placed her pointer finger on her chin, pretending to be searching for the perfect words. “You look like my grandma at my cousin’s wedding dance.” Becca ran to a cooler and grabbed a beer, cracking it open. “Just take a couple sips. It’ll relax you.”
Audrey considered it. It would be nice to loosen up a bit. It’s not like she would get drunk from a couple sips. Trevor was having fun with his friends. Sure, he wasn’t drinking, but he was out having a good time. He would want her to have fun too.
Audrey put the can to her lips and took a swig. The bitter taste filled her mouth and burned as it ran down her throat. She coughed. “Gross!”
“Feel better?” Becca moved her curvy hips to the music.
Audrey nodded. Although she didn’t feel the effects of just one sip of alcohol, in a way she did feel better because now she fit in. She still hated drinking and partying. She would much rather be hanging out with Trevor.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. The caller ID read, Trevor. She was ecstatic to see his name. Maybe the guys were done with their game, and he was looking to meet up with her again. At the same time she felt a pang of guilt. What if he could tell by the sound of her voice that she had a drink? Would he be mad? He would definitely be shocked, knowing how she felt about underage drinking. She decided not to tell him. The call went to voicemail, and she put the phone in her back pocket. She would text him in a couple of minutes.
The cold beer can suddenly felt toxic in her hand. What did she think she was doing? She was such a hypocrite. Using hand signals, she motioned to Becca that she was going outside. She’d stay by Trevor’s side for the night as planned. Becca made a pouty face, turning out her bottom lip. She pulled Audrey into a quick hug and then returned her attention to the dancers. Becca wouldn’t miss her.
Audrey turned to head for the back door. She temporarily lost her balance. The combination of pounding music, flashing lights, and alcohol wreaked havoc in her wholesome brain. She rubbed her temples and regained her bearings. She didn’t feel well. Could one swallow of beer make a girl drunk? Impossible. Nobody appeared to be smoking pot so she couldn’t be suffering from secondhand inhalation. She took cautious steps.
Her head spun. A wing back chair sat vacant in a corner across the room. Audrey headed straight toward it, squeezing her way past the mass of dancers. The room continued to spin, and she couldn’t keep her focus on the chair. Her head felt heavy, and a warm sensation crept through her veins, making her limbs feel weak and liquid. Her body swayed, or was it the room that was swaying? Just as her legs were giving out, strong arms circled around her waist. A deep, coaxing voice sounded in her ear. “Easy there. Looks like you could use a hand.”
Audrey collapsed into the strong arms and blinked her eyes, trying to focus. She strained to turn around to see who was holding her. She wanted to tell him to get his hands off her, tell him she didn’t need his help. But the dizziness was too intense; she was powerless to fight him. So instead, she accepted his help.
The warm sensation traveled up her spine to her head, soothing her headache and making her eyelids heavy. Unable to fight the strange sensation any longer, she allowed her body to relax and her eyelids to close. Her feet were dragging on the hardwood floor. He must be taking her to the wing back chair. But the music became muffled, more distant. He brought her to a different room, hopefully someplace where she could lie down for a while.
She tried to ask the stranger where they were going, but her tongue felt thick. Nothing more than a faint whisper passed her lips, left unheard. If only she could open her eyes. But it was impossible.
A door slammed shut. Plush carpet now brushed against her toes instead of hardwood. It was quiet. Finally. The stranger’s hands tightened around her waist, and his fingers dug into her sides. A pang of panic shot through the fogginess in her brain.
She was in trouble. This guy was not helping her but was taking advantage of her. She wanted to scream but knew it was futile. Not only was she incapable of speaking, but no one would hear her over the noise of the party. She was utterly helpless.
The stranger released his grip on her waist where bruises were surely forming. She felt herself falling. She squeezed her eyes tight in anticipation of slamming against the floor, but instead she landed softly on what she could only guess to be a bed. Her body, wanting to drift into sleep, welcomed the softness, but her mind was frantic. The strong hands returned to her waist and then painfully traveled the length of her body, tearing at her clothing. Unable to fight him, she did the one thing she was capable of. She prayed.
Then everything went black.
Read a chapter a day from Bittersweet Goodbye right here on this blog, beginning September 1st, 2019.